Reading through the poems of James Emanuel that have been collected here, I was both enlivened and saddened – enlivened because that is always my response to great poetry, and saddened because these poems have yet to find a wide and appreciative audience. That a poet of such quality has been neglected while lesser poets earn awards and titles speaks clearly to the wretched state of American letters. But this review is not meant to lament the current state of poetry, but rather to highlight one of its great living artists.
What is initially striking about the poetry of James Emanuel is that his voice – and do not doubt that it is an original one – is clearly discernable. Perhaps I should say that what is striking is that there is a voice to be found here at all. Any reader accustomed to browsing through the numerous literary journals of the day knows that most modern “poets” have no voice – their works blend together to form a congealed mass that only the insane or the clueless would care to examine. Yet these poems are clearly creations of a man who knows his craft well. Emanuel is equally adept at utilizing rhyming couplets and free verse; at addressing topics both weighty and commonplace. But regardless of the form or subject, the poems all buzz with a language that is distinctly Emanuel’s.
He is able, as few poets are, to render common occurrences in a language that is palpably fresh and exciting. One can only imagine what clichés a lesser poet would use to describe a snowfall, but Emanuel is able to turn the weather into lines like "snowflakes untraceably chaotic/ dived into caves, laid hills on hills,/ rode lavishly with every motion in the street." Or he is able to transform the passing scenery one sees on a train ride into lines like:
poppy-bloodied banks careened across her chin
and junkyard shears chewed steel before her eyes
and shit-soiled cows lashed wiry tails to score her brow
and hooded vans backed deepdark jaws against her breast[…]
I will gladly steal Ian Sansom's comment on Auden and use it for my own purposes: the poetry of James Emanuel is packed with language that makes us respond to its "sheer sexiness."
The volume itself is uniquely arranged, not chronologically, but rather by theme. One does not begin Whole Grain with the young Emanuel and end with the old; rather, the poems are grouped together under headings such as “How I Became a Poet,” “Some Woman’s Arms,” or “Afro-America, The Garden.” This was a bold move. Even the collected poems of major poets like Byron begin with juvenilia not truly worthy of inclusion - putting such works at the beginning allows the reader to say “ah yes, these poems are weak, but the poet was still young…” By organizing the poems thematically, Emanuel demonstrates that his early poems are capable of standing alongside his later ones. How many poets can that be said of?
It is truly a shame that literary convention cautions a writer not to quote excessively from his source, for there is much that is quotable in Whole Grain – there was a great temptation to fill this review with little else but the poems themselves. That is not to suggest that Emanuel’s poems are simply miniature stages set for memorable one-liners, however. They are memorable in the best sense of the word; they are, first and foremost, works by a writer who loves his language, and who has the talent to make it anew. Convention, at least, will allow me to close with a short excerpt. In the poem “Sonnet for a Writer,” Emanuel advises, “Far better to create one living line / Than learn a hundred sunk in fame’s recline.” Whole Grain demonstrates that James Emanuel is in no danger of having just one living line as his poetic legacy. Instead, he has left us a volume of two-hundred-fifteen poems, each of which is worthy of reading – and reading again.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Manbrarian website.]
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